Meals on Wheels reaches more in need

Ray Bronson and Dean Lafayette, left to right, chefs at Brattleboro Senior Meals in Brattleboro, prepare a dish that will be delivered to residents on May 21, 2020.

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In March of this year, the Brattleboro Reformer ran a series of short articles from Senior Solutions to mark the 50th anniversary of the national Meals on Wheels program and tout its benefits throughout Windham County.

Senior Solutions is the regional Council on Aging for Windham County, and serves readers of the Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal in the towns of Londonderry, Somerset, Wilmington and Stratton. Rosemary Greene, the new executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, which covers Bennington County, says the council is in meal contract negotiations but is not anticipating any reductions to meals counts.

In March of 1972, President Nixon signed into law a measure that amended the Older Americans Act of 1965 to include a national nutrition program for seniors 60 years and older. This legislation supported the rapid growth of the nationwide network of senior nutrition programs — commonly referred to as Meals on Wheels — that collectively served more than 223 million meals to over 2.4 million seniors prior to the pandemic.

For Vermont’s aging population, it has become a lifeline, with programs based throughout Southeastern Vermont. Collectively, they deliver thousands of meals each month to area residents who can’t leave their homes, providing our seniors with both the nutrition and the social connection they need and deserve. Last year, Senior Solutions supported 11 different local meal sites, both financially and administratively, which delivered 191,970 meals to 1,584 people at their homes throughout the region.

Beginning Saturday, however, funding for this valuable program will see dramatic cuts for the coming year, just as food and other prices continue to climb from inflationary pressures.

Federal Older Americans Act grant funding and state funds for Senior Solutions have increased only by $29,614 since 2018, according to Mark Boutwell, executive director of Senior Seniors.

“Due in part to this, over the years, we have continued to dip into our reserves to meet our operations costs,” he wrote in a memo to Senior Solutions staff. “These are long-term system issues that have caused our funds to be depleted. Like everyone else, this past year we have seen a lot of increases in costs.”

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Senior Solutions is cutting its contributions to the local Meals on Wheels groups by 25 percent.

How will local outlets make up for that shortfall when costs continue to rise? Some of the options suggested by Senior Solutions include reducing the number of participants, cutting frozen meals given to seniors for weekends and holidays, or removing a day of service out of the weekly schedule. None of those suggestions sit well with the local Meals on Wheels staff.

“Because we identified the need in the area being more important than ever, we don’t want to do that,” said Cynthia Fisher, executive director of Brattleboro Senior Meals.

For the current fiscal year, her group will have served more than 40,000 meals via Meals on Wheels and nearly 3,000 congregant meals.

“There’s this whole section of people in need who are being forgotten,” Fisher said, noting how many area seniors are living on fixed incomes, experiencing higher costs of living, food insecure and dealing with the stigma of using assistance programs. “There’s more need than ever for our area seniors to continue this program.”

Fisher said her group found out about the shortfall about six weeks ago and is scrambling to figure out how to make up for it. For now, an open position for assistant cook will go unfilled and fundraising efforts will be ramped up. Fisher also said she will be asking for more funding from the towns her group serves, applying for more grants, and looking at different avenues for procuring food.

In the meantime, we echo Fisher’s clarion call to have all concerned residents contact their legislators about the issue and consider donating to their local Meals on Wheels program. Visit the Vermont Legislature website at legislature.vermont.gov.


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